James Franco begins 'revolutionary' film class with local high schoolers | News | Palo Alto Online |


James Franco begins 'revolutionary' film class with local high schoolers

Actor returns to his alma mater, duplicating hands-on educational model he experienced

Actor James Franco never took a film class at Palo Alto High School, but he did take journalism with Esther Wojcicki.

In the mid 1990s, he wrote for Paly's student newspaper, The Campanile, which Wojcicki took over in 1984. The Campanile is today as it was then, run entirely by the students themselves, with student-editors planning and leading classes throughout the 10 or so production cycles each year. Wojcicki, who students past and present refer to affectionately as "Woj," takes mostly a backseat as a guide and mentor.

The model of the class – founded upon student agency, genuine teacher-student collaboration and the creation of a product with real-world application – had a profound effect on Franco.

"I didn't realize it as much at the time as I do now but she really empowers the students because ... it's highly self-run," Franco said in an interview with the Weekly on Sunday afternoon in Paly's state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, which houses the school's robust journalism program and on Sunday served as the setting for the first session of a special film class Franco is teaching to local high school students this year.

"Woj certainly is a guide and a support and also can push (students) in directions and maybe get them to do better when she sees potential but she gives them the power. That's really the model that ... I took on when I started teaching my own classes," he said.

Franco is putting that model to use with a group of 40 aspiring filmmakers who were selected out of more than 500 local high school students who applied for a space in Franco's film course. Franco announced on social media over Labor Day weekend that he would be teaching what he described as "the class I would have wanted in high school."

The film production workshop class, which began on Sunday, will run over the course of this year with the students meeting with Franco once a month for four hours and working with one another in between. (He'll be flying in from Canada, where he's currently working on a mini-series.)

The end product will be a "professional-level" feature film produced by Franco's Rabbit Bandini Productions. (The company recently produced the 2014 film "Palo Alto," directed by Gia Coppola and based on a collection of short stories by the same name that Franco wrote.)

Franco — who is currently teaching graduate-level film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, and the California Institute of the Arts — said that every class he teaches is project-based, "so instead of a newspaper we make a film." On Sunday, he called this particular class, for high school students, "revolutionary."

So the group of 40 students started on Sunday by reading through the script for the film they'll produce. "Metamorphosis: Junior Year" is based on a young adult novel of the same name by Franco's mother Betsy, who will also participate in the class and attended on Sunday. (It's a family affair: Franco's younger brother Tom, who has both acting and teaching experience, was also there and will be helping out with the class. All of the Francos and other members of James' team helping with the class were fingerprinted like any other school volunteer would be, said Paly Principal Kim Diorio.)

The main character in "Metamorphosis" is Ovid, an "introspective, charming and sweetly-neurotic artist-type" high school student, the script reads, struggling with overbearing parents, a girl he likes, being bored in "Living Skills" class and choosing art over a traditional academically driven path. James Franco said the novel was inspired by Paly.

On Sunday, the students broke into groups of five – each group with a designated director, writer, editor, cinematographer and producer – and chose characters from the script whose stories they will develop more in depth. Each group's mini episode will later be combined to make the entire film.

Over the next few weeks, before Franco returns again, the student writers have been tasked with outlining and writing their scenes. Future work for the whole team will include shooting and editing these scripts, drafting "visual plans" (which includes elements like detailed shot lists and character biographies, according to the course syllabus) as well as schedules and budgets.

Much like the Paly journalism program, the class allows students to have "one foot in the classroom and one foot in the real world," as Franco wrote in a foreword to Wojcicki's recent book, "Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom."

"But the important part of working on the paper," Franco wrote, "that I understood subconsciously then, and that I understand explicitly as a teacher now, is that my work was being seen by a public, and that that changed the work. ... None of us lives in a vacuum, and neither should our work."

The 40 participating students are almost exclusively from Paly and Gunn high schools, with only two from Menlo School and Los Altos High School. Many have previous film experience and have or are taking the available related coursework at Palo Alto's two high schools: theater, video production, and film composition and literature.

Paly senior Andrew Baer, who described himself as a self-taught filmmaker, said he was most interested to see how the student collaboration would play out.

Just the night before, he screened "Unmasked," a documentary about teen mental health and suicide that he created with a group of 13 Paly and Gunn students last summer.

Other students, from freshmen to seniors, have spent years putting together short YouTube films. Two have already taken several acting classes with Betsy Franco, who offers classes at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre.

"I've just been making videos with my friends for a couple years," said Paly freshman Sam Cook. "And then when I heard about this class – it's like (a) dream come true, almost. It's a big deal to me."

Wojcicki said she was so impressed by not just these 40 students but almost all of the 550 or so who applied for a space in the class that she decided to offer them an alternative.

The Paly Media Arts program partnered with Cinequest — a San Jose nonprofit that "fuses the world of the filmed arts with that of Silicon Valley's innovation to empower youth, artists and innovators to create and connect," its website reads" – to offer a self-paced online film course to the rest of students for free.

Students will be required to complete several assignments, including creating a short film – which will be their ticket to participate in Cinequest's annual film festival. The class' final film will also be submitted to the film festival.

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21 people like this
Posted by Local family
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2015 at 10:58 pm

Can't wait to see what the kids can do with such resources.

That was REALLY thoughtful of Esther Wojcicki to arrange for this other opportunity for the applicants. I know in the world of non-profit grants, a huge amount of effort goes into applying for grants by so many who have no chance. Creating another opportunity for everyone was a truly thoughtful thing to do.

Is it possible for kids who couldn't or didn't want to apply for the film class to take the Cinequest online film course (whether free or at cost)? I can't seem to find a link.

7 people like this
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 9:07 am

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

Woj never ceases to impress. Way to go!

2 people like this
Posted by Scott Montague
a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2015 at 9:52 am

Very nicely written article! The Franco(s) are extraordinary people, really, ... I have recently been blown away by how few people will take a bit of time to help someone else. I truly admire those who do; more than any first place ribbon or highest grade ... there can only be one "best" so it is not a reliable source of happiness. You can help many and share in their success, feel productive, feel like you made the world a little better instead of just yourself.

I probably need help with correcting this grammar, make a comment with how it should have actually been written.

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Like this comment
Posted by E. R. White
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 1:42 pm

I agree with Scott Montague 100%

Like this comment
Posted by M.R.
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 14, 2015 at 4:54 pm

What a cool opportunity for these future artists!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2015 at 5:32 pm

Congratulations to the students in the class and thanks to the Franco family for the opportunity.

I would be interested to know how many students subscribed for the opportunity to attend the class. Was it oversubscribed? How were the students selected if this was the case?

I think it is wonderful when something like this happens and some get the opportunity to do it. I just think of those who hoped to get selected and didn't get in. How sad for them.

2 people like this
Posted by Anderson
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 21, 2015 at 10:40 am

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 21, 2015 at 11:15 am

@Anderson: No need to hate Franco - his heart is in the right place. However, this is concerning: "with the students meeting with Franco once a month for four hours and working with one another in between. (He'll be flying in from Canada, where he's currently working on a mini-series.)"

I agree that high school students need some continued guidance - they are still immature. I also wonder how they will find time to meet outside of class because the most difficult part of projects in high school is finding time to meet between everyone's extracurriculars, tutoring, sports schedules, and the mounds of Paly homework. This is going to take a lot of time away from homework (bye, bye AP classes). It seems to be an appropriate class for those who seriously want to enter filmmaking as a career - at least for the college applications and resumes.

Still, great that Franco is offering it, although would be preferable during summertime where there can be daily focus.

2 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 21, 2015 at 12:31 pm

I really wish people would read the articles before commenting. Esther Wojcicki is teaching the class with Franco. There were 500 applicants, 40 were let in. Priority was given to kids in Paly's film class (makes sense to me.)

Yes, the film project will take time. Lots of things take time--including sports, band, drama, working on the school newspaper, robotics and video games. Not all kids have decent time-management skills or a schedule that allows for a big project like this. Plenty, however, do.

The amount of concern-trolling over this one project reads mostly like envy. (And, no, my progeny did not make the cut--but I still think it's a wonderful opportunity for the kids who did get in.)

4 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2015 at 4:03 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.

This sounds exciting! I wish the best to these lucky students!

1 person likes this
Posted by Local family
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm


DK didn't want to take Franco's class but was very interested in the Cinequest class offered to everyone who didnt get in. No one answered whether it was possible for other students to join the Cinequest online class. Were you offered a link? DK tried calling/emailing Cinequest but no response. Interest BCO currently working on trying to write a script about a grandparent and the Cinequest class could really help.

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